After a dispute over the closure of state broadcaster ERT, the moderate leftist party Dimar has left Greece's ruling coalition. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras now holds a dangerously thin majority.
The two remaining partners in Greece's ruling coalition, the conservative Nea Dimokratia led by Samaras and the socialist Pasok, under the leadership of the former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, are still able to govern, but barely. Together, the former opponents hold 153 of the 300 seats in parliament.
The decision by Dimar, the Democratic Left party, to leave the collation was controversial, even within the party itself. Only a few hours before party leader Fotis Kouvelis broke the news, party spokesman Vassilis Economou was publicly calling for Dimar to remain in the three-party coalition.
"Since last summer we've been sincerely trying to get our country back on its feet and we must continue and finish this task," said Economou on Greek television. But after three successive crisis meetings to discuss the closure of state broadcaster ERT, the coalition heads had come to a compromise, and this result should be respected, he added.
Economou was referring to an apparent compromise suggested by Samaras at the last minute to appease his angered coalition partners. According to reports in the Greek media, the conservative prime minister declared himself ready, albeit reluctantly, to allow ERT to begin broadcasting again, but with staff cuts of around 20 percent.
A question of democracy, not austerity
The prime minister's proposal served to soften up Socialist leader Venizelos, and Dimar head Kouvelis is said to not have immediately dismissed Samaras' apparent retreat. However, the majority of the Dimar representatives held fast to its stated position on Friday (21.06.2013), saying the crisis over the broadcaster was not just a question of austerity, but above all a question of democracy.
"The way the state broadcaster was handled is not a reason for early elections, but is quite a serious issue for us as it signals a sign of further reform efforts in the public sector," said Economou in an interview on Greek television. For Dimar, these reforms should not come by decree but by respecting democratic core principles, and that didn't happen in the case of ERT, he said.
On June 11, Samaras shut down the broadcaster by state decree, and ERT's 2,600 employees lost their jobs. His reasoning: the state media lacked transparency and was wasteful.
The Journalist's Union in Athens reacted with strikes, and left-wing opposition head Alexis Tsipras brought out the big guns. Speaking at a rally in the northern Greek city of Kavala, he said not even the Greek military junta in the 1960s or the occupation forces during World War II would have dared to simply shut down the public media with the flick of a switch as Samaras did.
In polls, Samaras and Tsipras are running head to head. The shutdown of the state broadcaster is expected to bring sympathy to the opposition and show the former coalition partner Dimar in a bad light, according to Athens political analyst Tassos Papas.
"What the Democratic Left wanted, and what they succeeded in getting, was to leave the coalition without bringing it down," said Papas on the Athens television broadcaster SKAI. Otherwise, the party would have been accused of blocking the ruling coalition in order to force a new election.
In fact, there had been speculation in the Greek press for days about a split in the coalition and a possible early election. Even the European Commission felt compelled to appeal to the "responsibility of the political leaders for the good of Greece and Europe."
An election is now no longer an issue, "but quite possible in the fall," said Papas. The Democratic Left had always been the weak link in the coalition and had not shown much enthusiasm for shared governance. Papas pointed out that Dimar parliamentarians had voted against the labor reform, insisted on its own anti-racism bill and made a political issue out of the state television debate.
The two remaining coalition partners will look for salvation in a government reshuffle, according to Greek media reports. It is almost certain that the political heavyweights Socialists will take part in the new government, something Pasok leader Venizelos had strictly rejected just a year ago.